Meet Kerstin Wagner, Head of Talent Acquisition at Deutsche Bahn, a senior executive with more than 20 years of experience in leading talent, recruiting and employer branding units.
Path to leadership
Q: Kerstin, can you tell us more about your career path ? How did you get to where you are now, and what roadblocks did you have to overcome?
My background is in business administration which I studied at ESB Reutlingen and NEOMA Business School in Reims. I got the opportunity to kick-off my study life in France where I spent two years, followed by 2 years in Germany. Since I very much enjoyed studying and working abroad, I decided to get my MBA in another country – Canada. Being inspired by working in an international environment I was clear to start my career in a global company. Therefore, I decided to join Siemens where I spent more than 15 years.
My first job brought me to HR as project manager to the SVP HR for the Telecommunications business at Siemens. It was eye-opening since I learned what HR is really all about: how impactful and vital HR should be and which crucial role a professional and modern, forward-looking HR team plays for the success of a company. Since then I’ve been in charge of various functions: from traditional HR consulting to ramp-up a startup in the USA, to talent acquisition, to restructuring and founding a temporary employment agency.
In 2012 I joined Deutsche Bahn, where my responsibility was to build the entire Talent acquisition unit from scratch: employer branding, HR marketing, recruiting, temporary staffing through our own temp agency, being responsible for the strategy as well as for all TA operations. Talent acquisition is a key strategic topic for our business success: Last year we hired 25.000 new employees. There are 800 experts in my talent acquisition team who make our ambitious goals possible.
Being close to the development of the labour market on the one hand side and having a good insight in relevant, sought-after skills on the other side, I am also passionate about leading our HR Lab together with two wonderful colleagues. Our goal: we want to predict the future of jobs, how they will transform based on developments in technology or society and which skills will be relevant in the future. We created a method to shape the jobs of tomorrow and to detect effective measures to close the skills gap. Or in other words: we help the business to initiate and accompany their job transformation in a timely and holistic manner.
Q: What or who helped and inspired you along the way?
Vision, curiosity and passion were important sources in my career. As a leader it is a must to have a vision, a “big picture” of where you want lead your team, to have a lighthouse to orientate towards.
It helps you to support your team to find the right path to realize big goals. Curiosity is the prerequisite to learn every day, to discover new subjects and bring in new perspectives. Especially nowadays, in our world of transformation and disruption: It’s crucial to understand how tech & IT will change the way we work and how we can analyze for example data or use technology to become smarter and better in our daily business.
However, being passionate on things you do is the main driver to inspire others. In a nutshell: I love working in HR and together with a passionate team we try to improve and shape talent acquision every day in order to become an attractive and candidate -/employee centric employer.
Gender gap in HR leadership
Q: In this conversation, we’d like to focus on striving for more diverse leadership, specifically having more women in HR leadership roles. What are your observations on the current diversity landscape, especially in HR leadership? What strategies are you taking at your company towards developing and promoting more diverse leadership, and how do you measure these strategies’ success?
Diversity is anchored in our corporate strategy and flagged as a top priority. We have developed a bold diversity strategy including concrete measures to reach our ambitious goals.
In March 2020, the Executive Board set the goal of 30% women in management until 2024. In order to realize this goal, we developed a holistic talent acquisition strategy to hire more women in leadership roles: “30 measures for 30%”. These measures tackle different phases in a talent acquisition process – starting with employer branding, HR Marketing, application process as well as the “pre-boarding” phase.
However, we are not only focusing on leadership roles but we are also trying to increase the proportion of women at DB in general. There are already tens of thousands of women working in one of the 500 various jobs offered by DB – Deutsche Bahn will be THE company for women on all levels.
One of our highlights this year: The DB Women`s Month in March was meant to focus our initiatives for future female colleagues – with various recruiting events, job coaching, and insights in the DB job world. As a finale we started a Guinnes World Record attempt and we got it! We managed to gather over 2,800 viewers to watch a live panel on diversity. It was our intention to put diversity on the center stage and intensify the discussion around effective solutions and actions.
We also keep track on the impact of our strategy and implemented measures. Our Diversity Dashboard allows us to monitor in detail how many females we have in our pipeline, how many women are in the application process and how these numbers are evolving over time. At the same time we make sure that we have attractive employment conditions. The key is ‘flexibilization’, for example, through part-time options or job-sharing opportunities. Another example is to offer employees options to choose from, such as ‘taking more vacations’ versus ‘getting more pay.’ We implemented this innovative option in 2018 and got a lot of positive feedback.
Besides having a clear diversity strategy, we very much address the issue of ‘mindset’ within our diversity strategy.
First and foremost, managers are the key stakeholders since they hire for their jobs and develop their employees. So, we should make them very aware of the topic, e.g. through diversity trainings.
Q: What advice would you offer to HR professionals trying to make a difference in their own companies?
It is vital to live HR as a strategic role. HR is not only embedded in strategic discussions but it is one important pillar that helps the company to become sustainably successful.
Based on my professional experience, the recipe for success as an HR leader and expert comprises among others the following dimensions:
- Having a vision and being strong in strategic thinking is one of the key elements to navigate and excel in an ambiguous and complex world.
- You also have to be excellent in operations, in implementing measures and in steering projects. Customer–centricity is the prerequisite to design and implement the best suited processes and methods.
- Understanding trends and technology and being a front-runner in innovation helps you to live modern and forward–thinking HR and enables you to be one step ahead in the market.
- We are in a world of disruption and therefore embracing transformation and being excellent in networking and change management gives us a strong stake.
- Leadership is the key to open the door to all of this. Be a role model yourself and enthuse others to follow you on your leadership journey.
Challenges caused by the pandemic
Q: The pandemic caused by COVID-19 had a great impact on many professionals, and in particular, women who combine their leader role with parent role. It is very challenging to stay productive, fully involved into decision-making process at work and handle things out with the children. Could you share a few thoughts on how companies can support working mothers in home office?
We have many colleagues who have to be on site, people who work on trains or in our maintenance factories. Yet, a high degree of flexibility is essential for everyone. Therefore, Deutsche Bahn offers parents additional time-off in order to take care of their children. A special 24/7 hotline for employees was installed to get support from psychologists in case home-office and home-schooling become too demanding. In addition, the senior management was offered workshops to learn more about mental health and how they can strengthen their teams.
Looking back on 12 months in a home office situation with my team, flexibility, taking care of one another and communication were the cornerstones of success. As a team we managed to reinvent ourselves at the very beginning of the pandemic: we newly developed our entire strategy within just ten days. This gave us the opportunity to look at processes and procedures in a complete new way and to be fast and courageous in implementing them. It turned out that we can be very creative and innovative working from home thanks to the high degree of flexibility and purpose – driven team.
Paving the way to other women
Q: Finally, we’d like to ask you to share a couple of tips: Can you recommend actionable steps women in HR should take in their own leadership journeys?
Let me share four learnings of my career with you.
First, have a vision. Think about what you want to achieve in the long run. You are responsible for your career and you can navigate towards your own goals. Be flexible and ready to follow alternative paths.
Second, be brave and ambitious. Take advantage of opportunities even if they seem bigger and more challenging than usual – responsibility is fun! Be courageous to break new ground, question things, and be innovative. This is how you can get a little better every day.
Third, remain true to yourself. Stick to your values and do everything with the necessary serenity. You will only unfold your potential in areas that you are passionate about.
Fourth, build your network. The most important factor for one’s own career is an intense and diverse network. Take every opportunity to maintain and expand it. Especially in times like these.
Q: What skills do women in HR need to build to become better leaders?
Being able to communicate in an inspiring and transparent way is one big asset for me as a leader. Have the big picture in mind and share it!
By working remotely, it is even more important to stay very close to your team and to keep it informed on a regular basis.
Being an enabler for great ideas is a also a very important source of leadership excellence: listen to your team, bring different backgrounds, experiences and expertise together and use this swarm intelligence to be innovative. Always remember – the idea itself counts and hierarchy should not play any role. It is your role as a leader to create a frame of creativity and trust in which ideas can grow quickly and pragmatically.
As a leader you should also be a great role model for learning and development – excellence starts with yourself and therefore make sure to stay ahead of your own subject and upcoming HR trends. Stay connected to other HR leaders and experts to learn and grow.
Download eBook: Women in HR leadership
Insights and actionable steps HR professionals can take to bring more gender diversity in leadership into their companies.
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